Author’s note: This article is adapted from my book, Network Beyond Bias.
You don’t need to understand someone to show respect for them. Respect can be defined as “to feel or show polite or courteous responses to the wishes or judgments of others.” For trans and nonbinary individuals, respect means acknowledging and accepting their identities. Even if you don’t understand what terminology to use or how to show support, you can still demonstrate respect. In other words, be polite and courteous.
1. Use Preferred Names
Use each individual’s preferred name, and ensure you are pronouncing it correctly. Ask as many times as you need to get it right.
What if the person standing in front of you were the CEO of your company, or the child of the CEO. Would it still be hard to get their name right? I’m guessing not.
2. Pronouns Show Respect
Use each individual’s preferred pronouns. This can be tricky, especially if the pronouns are new to you. If you mess up, apologize and try again. When in doubt, ask. You are also usually safe using they / them / their.
Pro tip: Imagine that for one day your boss, your peers, and everyone else refused to use the pronouns you prefer. Would you laugh it off, even if they knew it bothered you?
3. Context Is Important
Keep in mind that some people may present themselves differently depending on the context. For example, one nonbinary individual I know (pronouns: ve, vim, vir) presents as female and uses vir legal name and the pronouns she/her/hers at work, because ve fears the repercussions of being out professionally. The same individual presents as nonbinary and uses a masculine name in vir personal life.
Take your cues from the individual, and ask if you’re unsure.
4. Deriding People Makes You
Look Like a Grade-A Jerk
Never, ever, ever use “it” to refer to a person, and never, ever, ever make someone’s identity the subject of ridicule, whether they can hear you or not. Dehumanizing people is never respectful, never appropriate, and never inclusive. You will only live to regret having been an ignorant, disrespectful jerk.
I know, because I used to be an ignorant, disrespectful jerk. I’ve since evolved into a slightly less ignorant, regretful, recovering jerk. It’s not much, but it’s a start. I share this for two reasons. First, I want you to know that it’s not too late to educate yourself and do better. Second, I can’t apologize directly to people who may have overheard me being insensitive. I can’t take it back. But I can admit that I was wrong and do better. So I am.
5. Safety Is Paramount
Do not “out” anyone as trans or nonbinary. Use each person’s preferred name and pronouns, and leave it at that. Remember, for many trans and nonbinary individuals, being outed can threaten their safety, their income, their housing situation, and their health.